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Printer ink use and waste?

  |   Article, Articles and reviews, Personal views, Printing   |   2 Comments

Why your printer wastes ink

When it’s important that not all your ink is used for printing

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In responses to Keith Cooper’s printer reviews and articles, two question often recur.

How much ink is wasted in ‘cleaning’ and does the printer ‘clog’?

It turns out that there is a lot more to the working of printers than may be clear when looking at specifications and marketing materials.

In this short note, Keith looks at some of the ways modern printers work and how he personally considers the way printers use ink. There’s also a look at how printers are marketed and reasons that ink ‘maintenance use’ is not really covered…


“Printers use up ink just to keep running – get over it”

I’m often asked about printer reliability and ‘clogging’ and general ink usage. A lot of people see assorted scare stories about ‘clogging’, ink ‘waste’ and associated costs on forums. This complicates their decisions regarding new printers or updating the one they have.

Let’s say I’m personally looking to buy a new printer. It will be A2 (17″) or larger, since I like big prints, but consideration of ink usage for printing and maintenance will have absolutely NO bearing on my choice.

Why so?

Well, I’ve been lucky enough to talk with a wide range of people at different printer companies who design printers and one thing they all say is that all current printers use up ink as a sort of ‘lubricant’ to keep them working. It a ‘consumable’ much like the oil that keeps your car engine from seizing up..

Ink has two purposes – one to go onto paper and one to maintain the print heads/printing capability.  If you print a lot then the proportion of ink that’s used for printing is higher, but some is still used to keep the printer working.

Modern printer inks contain ingredients that are there to prevent such issues as drying out, settling of pigments and optimal expression by a print head. Ink engineering is a key part of the design process for printers. This is also one reason I avoid 3rd party inks, but that’s another story…

The best way of keeping your printer in good order is to use it regularly. By regularly I mean at least every week or two, even for a simple nozzle check on plain paper. Turning it off for long periods to avoid ‘cleaning’ can easily be a false economy, since some printers will spot this and do an extra strong clean, just in case. Some just do an extra clean when powered on, instead of waking up from standby.

Note that my experiences here relate to A3+ (13″) and larger photo printers – when you look at office and all-in-one style printers, the economics of ink use/’waste’ can be very different.


Printed 16 years ago – even then, regular printing prevented clogging.

Negative reinforcement

If you do much searching online for printer reliability matters, you will quickly come up with horror stories and general gripes about the ‘cost’ of printing. Fair enough, some people resent paying for anything, but if you see expensive ink being used up for no obvious reason, then why not grumble?

The internet amplifies complaints, but I’d note it’s very rare to see any positives; ‘Hey, learning to print has meant I get so much more out of my photography, well worth the cost”.

OK, that one does feel like it’s out of a pitch for a printer marketing campaign, but you get the idea…

You can’t expect people to see more of the overall benefits they could get from printing when the actual costs are largely ignored in most printer marketing materials.
Of course, I can happily say that since I don’t sell inks, paper or printers ;-)

I do see changes in some parts of the market with bulk ink for office style printers and ‘accounting’ software at the top end, but a lot of photographers’ needs fit in the middle. If you do see figures for ink use given in specifications, they tend to inspire as much confidence as car MPG figures…

Epson maintenance tank

A maintenance cart from one of my first large format printers – this is ink that has been used to keep my printer working, not ‘wasted’

The need to sell printers

As someone who gets to test a lot of photo/art printers, I read marketing and press materials from around the world. They may differ in emphasis but their aim is to convince you that this new printer is what you need to improve your printing.

It’s at this point, that ‘key features’ are needed – often conveniently summarised for printer ‘reviewers’ too busy to actually test the printers themselves. Now, as an experienced printmaker, I see some as unimportant or even utterly meaningless. However I do appreciate that they are there to do a job.

Read printer marketing materials as just that – my usual answer to anyone with a perfectly good working printer is not to think of updating to the next new model unless there is some new feature that is of genuine importance to them.

As yet, I’ve seen nothing that shows why printers use ink for maintenance. I can understand why – since when did a car advert mention engine oil?  Whilst it’s seen as a negative, why mention it?  I wish they would, it would save me a few emails…

One other thing that printer marketing people cannot really say is that if you can’t make stunning prints with any current (13″ and above) printer from the last 5 years, then the problem is most likely with your photography and editing skills, not the printer or the paper – [yes I include myself in this on occasions ;-) ]

Dmax, thick paper and selling…

You may see the term Dmax mentioned with respect to the darkest black a printer can produce on a particular paper. It’s a perfectly reasonable measurement to take, but the problem is that without context it is meaningless.

Let’s take the example of two different art papers, both similar in type. On paper 1 we measure a Dmax of 1.55 and on paper 2 a Dmax of 1.65.  OK, we now know that 100% black on paper 2 is slightly darker than the other. However it tells us nothing of what 98% or 95% or 90% black looks like.

So, for example, paper 2 could print all deep blacks around ~1.6 (crunching up shadows) whilst paper 1 could drop away steadily to show clear shadow detail. In this respect I’d choose paper 1 any day for my B&W photos. If you just looked at (or were only shown) a Dmax number you might easily assume the reverse.

Using any numbers like this needs explanation – something there’s not the space for or will to include in printer and paper marketing materials.

So, next time you see someone on a forum saying that such and such paper is good because of its ‘Dmax’ number, feel free to wonder if they actually know where it comes from and its context.

One more example to think about is the ‘feel’ of paper.  The thickness and stiffness are usually only ever known to the person printing the image. The surface texture affects the look of the print, as does the way ink works with it.

For a mounted print, who is the paper marketing aimed at?

  • Thickness, stiffness, feel – just for the person printing.
  • Surface texture, ink ‘look’, gamut – visible in the end result

Appreciating some of the needs of marketing allows you to cut through some of it, but don’t let what it includes limit what you decide is relevant to what you want.


Two printers I’m testing – no I won’t be doing any comparisons.

A vs. B

On the site here I make a point of never doing comparative reviews [Why?] but I do get a lot of people ask about ink use.

It’s difficult to give meaningful answers about general ink use, since I’m often testing brand new printers over a limited period (a few weeks) and I’m doing all kinds of testing that eats up ink (profiling for example).

However, it’s reasonable to say that the bigger the ink carts, the lower the cost of ink per unit volume. this tends to translate into bigger upfront costs for printers. To get the benefits though you need to print a fair bit. I’ve written elsewhere about the issues associated with moving to larger format printers, but a reminder that asking what you’re going to do with all those prints is a good idea…

All my print related articles and reviews are featured on the Print articles index page


As ever questions and comments welcome – please feel free to contact me directly at Northlight if you’d prefer.

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  • Elliot Puritz | Aug 28, 2020 at 3:41 pm

    Ian makes some excellent points. It is certainly true that there remains a determined minority who see printing as the ultimate expression of photography. I suspect that many of those who embrace printing of digital images have come from an analog background.

    One must wonder if Canon, Epson, and in some cases HP should simply give away their printers in return for joining an “ink club” that guarantees that the company will receive a regular income from users of their printers. Drop all of the pretense and admit that the profit in the sale of printers is of course from the sale of the inks. If one pays for a given amount of ink in advance then drop the cost of the printer! Tongue firmly in cheek.

    Why indeed purchase a new printer? Keith’s salient points regarding the difficulty of appreciating very subtle differences in prints is to the point.

  • IAN P DOUGLAS | Aug 3, 2020 at 2:35 pm

    I think we are all educated to know that ink is a necessity and that some will indeed be wasted in both normal usage as well as maintenance functions (head cleans/alignments etc). I think additionally we want our ink to be consistent in quality and to to last a fair period of time for archival purposes. These latter two points certainly are not going to keep the cost of ink down but it is also clear that printer manufacturers have for many many years profited excessively from ink sales? Indeed there are those that have explained that the printer cost is a ‘loss-leader’ that ties the customer into buying super-expensive inks as means of making money. Certainly there are printers being sold for £30 which seems ridiculous until you add up the ‘potential’ hundreds of £s that accrue post printer sale!
    Alongside this we have seen illegal action from HP deliberately creating third-party ink leaks to protect their valuable market – unfortunately I discovered this after the printer had been trashed in my case else I might have litigated if I could have secured clear evidence in my case.
    No Photographer wants prints that fade or vary when reprinting but the extreme cost of printer ink per ml that after all come from a gigantic commercial production are excessive. With excessive profit comes excessive action to both defend that market and to maintain it.
    It is only in recent years that printer manufacturers have made available ‘bulk tank’ inkjet printers and indeed these have been limited to consumer quality printers destined for non critical work in very small offices – where they suit.
    Printing as a Photographic skill is diminishing amongst photographic clubs with only die-hards (including myself) still bearing the excessive costs necessary. If it were just a matter of cost I suspect most of us would have long given up?
    But it isnt, it is an art form amongst dedicated photographers as well as Professionals like yourself. When I mess up an A2
    print or ink runs out/the paper feeds skew-wiff it is only my pocket it comes out of. I have no customer base or profits/tax alleviation to write it off to? (I should acknowledge your website note that paid work is thin on the ground at the moment so I do hope this is picking up for you and your family).
    I do not however have a customer expectation to meet or the pressures of business (though I do have a small business but it is non-photographic) so know of those pressures.
    I think defending ink prices is an indefensible position. Pointing out ink usage is both necessary and inevitable is fact and this should indeed be borne in mind.
    What many do not know at the point of purchase is that ‘hidden’ maintenance cycles are builtin that are triggered at regular intervals that consume ink even if you are not printing. I believe (for example) in the case of the Canon Imageprograf Pro 1000 this is every 60 hours? So if you are not printing within that time period you will have a head clean triggered at next usage and your maintenance cartridge will soon be full and the ink cartridges emptied! Thats a fact of life as we say.
    But cheaper ink will stem the cessation of printing at home – bad for Pro labs but good for the Art of Printing and Photography!

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